Typically, the firing of a venerated three-time manager of the year who had just led his team to their third postseason appearance in four years would come as something of a shock. But when the Cincinnati Reds announced Friday morning that they would be cutting ties with Dusty Baker just three days after the team lost its sudden death Wild Card game to division rival Pittsburgh Pirates, the outcry was muted at most. That’s because Baker—and, more importantly, his managerial approach—has become increasingly antiquated in the modern baseball world.
Baker, 64, is old-school. He believes in bunting, hit-and-runs and stolen bases—basically all the strategies that current baseball wisdom says almost always hurt a team’s chances. Baker was the first to bring the absolutely absurd notion of “clogging the bases“— wherein slower players magically prevent the faster players hitting behind them in the lineup from scoring runs—to prominence. He is also partially credited with irreparably damaging the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood during his tenure as manager of the Chicago Cubs from 2003-2006, thanks to a complete and utter disregard for pitch counts (some have theorized that former Reds pitcher Edison Volquez suffered a similar fate at Baker’s hands). There’s also evidence that his outdated approach extends beyond the diamond. In 2003, Baker made headlines for saying “blacks and Latins take the heat better than most whites, and whites take the cold better than most blacks and Latins.”
All of this is to say that there was a growing sense around the league that Baker wasn’t making the most of his talented roster. He began to abandon some of his former bad habits (allowing absurd pitch counts, completely disregarding the value of on-base percentage), but still remains wedded to many of his old tendencies (the Reds led the league in sacrifice hits this year with 85). Despite all the numbers in the world establishing starters are substantially more valuable than relievers, Baker kept flame-throwing Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman as his closer for the 2013 season, against the wishes of GM Walt Jocketty. The latest reports indicate that Baker practically dared Jocketty to fire him (with one year remaining on his contract) in a misguided attempt to protect hitting coach Brook Jacoby.
Even without that bit of reported drama, Baker was likely done. Strictly by the numbers, he’s a relic in today’s game. But while numbers are perhaps more important in baseball than any other sport, the same isn’t true for managers. Sure, tactical decisions play a role, but even someone as stuck in his ways as Baker likely won’t cost his team more than a few games over the course of a season due to a few extra bunts and stolen bases. Just as important—if not more so—is his ability to manage his players off the field during the course of a grueling 162-game season. Given his reputation as a “player’s manager” and his 1,671 victories (16th all-time) and .526 winning percentage, that’s clearly an area in which Baker has excelled. But it can be difficult to judge a manager’s performance based on those things you don’t see—that ability to lead your team day in and day out.
What Reds management did see were Baker’s questionable decisions—the bunting, the tinkering, the refusal to accept baseball’s new reality—and that’s why, after his third 90-win season in four years, he’s out of a job.